A Baker’s Dozen of Issues Facing Online Academic Journal Start-ups

image_pdfimage_print

Thomas Gould

WJMCR 14 (March 2009)

Introduction|Conclusions

Abstract

The rapid upsurge in online academic journal creation, publishing, and management has challenged researchers and universities. Much of the recent flurry of activity has occurred in reaction to rapidly rising costs for journals produced by for-profit publishing houses. Few guidelines and protocols have been created to assist online journal editors and boards in this new world of university/not-for-profit web publishing. This article outlines the nature of the increased publication of these new journals, as well as offers advice in 13 areas these journal editors and boards will face. This article is based on the findings of academics in a wide variety of academic fields, including library science, as well as the author’s own experience as an online journal creator and editor.

Introduction

Creation is, perhaps, the most human of all traits. The desire to generate a lasting creation from one’s thoughts and desires can be traced to back to cave drawings, and tracked forward to blogs, Facebook, and the less-glitzy trend of establishing online academic journals. In the past decade, hundreds–nearing thousands–of such journals have appeared, some solely online, some a reflection of their print journal cousins, some partly online, with only abstracts available. Together, as a movement, these online creations and their editors have all faced a host of challenges, everything from justifying a need for the publication, defining its subject, and archiving content reliably, as well as establishing some form of a sustainable business model. And, very much like their pre-historic antecedents, the choices these new creators make have a meaningful impact on the survivability of their works.

The purpose of this research is to outline the current status of online journal publishing, and, more importantly, outline the critical challenges facing these new publishers and editors as they consider establishing new academic journals. Many researchers in various fields–library science, computer science, education and others–have touched on several of the areas addressed by this research. This effort approaches the issues from a mass communication perspective, addressing a wider scope not previously addressed within any one work. At the same time, the author acknowledging this is by no means an exhaustive study. It does, however, reflect a comprehensive and thoughtful approach based, in part, on the author’s own personal experience in establishing and managing an online journal, as well as the methods and philosophies discussed by a diverse group of researchers examining this emerging field of communication.

Online Publishing Thus Far

As is always the case with any online activity, change within online publishing is constant and rapid. Starting in the mid 1990s, publishers of print journals began putting all or some limited amount of content online, available usually through subscriptions available within university library systems. The trend was dutifully tracked through the decade, and, as is generally the case with new phenomena in research, a descriptive approach was used to track the numbers of online mass communication research articles published compared to overall numbers of such research, with some discussion of the structural bases for the movement to web-based publishing.1

In a more comprehensive examination of all academic journals, an earlier study by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) tracked the presence of online publications, including the method of delivery. The January 1991 edition of the ARL Directory of Electronic Journals reported 110 journals online, likely accessed via File Transfer Protocol (FTP), since the web was a few years away. By 1998, that number had jumped to more than 6,000.2 By 2007, the ARL reported that 60% of the 20,000 peer review journals were available online in some form.3 A major publisher of journals, EBSCO, noted in February 2008 that almost 18,000 of its academic journals and newsletters were available online, either through library subscriptions or open access.4

And as Johnson and Luther point out, the trend since the 1990s also includes a shift away from publishers offering both print and online access toward a strictly web-based publishing system. Ware, in quoting Johnson and Luther, suggests the convenience of online might be the tipping factor. “The users have voted–and they want the convenience of electronic” articles.5 Johnson and Luther go on to cite research that reinforced the notion that not only are the economics in favor of online publishing, but that users prefer electronic to print. “Scholarship, particularly in science, is becoming increasingly born-digital and networked digitally” and younger users of library and other research sources overwhelmingly prefer electronic access to journal research compared to print.6 Ware notes a conversation with a librarian at a large research library: “The librarian concluded [from a study he had conducted] that on present trends, there would be little demand for print journals within five years.”7 A study by researchers at Drexel University showed a significant preference among graduate students, but less adoption among faculty for electronic materials over print journals.8 Two other researchers, tracking acceptance among faculty, found a much higher rate, due in large part because of the 24/7 availability of research materials.

Our in-depth interviews with faculty indicate a high degree of comfort with electronic access to journal literature. The scholars we spoke with clearly recognized the convenience of 24/7 access from home or office. Like many librarians, most faculty would prefer to retain print just in case, but when confronted with forced choices, the overwhelming majority either supported more electronic access at the cost of print retention or felt unequipped to make this choice.9

Two earlier significant pieces of research dug deeper than most. Hal R. Varian’s “The Future of Electronic Journals,” presented at a conference at Emory University in Atlanta in April 1997, addressed the future evolution of online journals. Variant proposed a supply and demand model for publishing scholarly work, concluding that, for most universities, “The ability�to attract top-flight researchers depends on the size of the collection of the library. Threats to cancel journal subscriptions are met with cries of outrage by faculty.” Varian cites research suggesting the costs of a quarterly, special-purpose, non-technical academic journal publication as roughly $120,000 per issue, with an estimated per subscriber non-profit fee of $200 and for-profit fee of $600.10 Add to that, he notes, Lesk estimated annual increase in cost for this journal of between 48% and 93% projected over a ten-year period.11 Together with an estimated per reader cost for some journal articles of $200, the result is an economic model that is difficult to maintain.

Varian concludes that to reduce the cost of academic communication, the manuscript-handling process would require re-engineering. Using electronic distribution could cut costs within the editorial system by 50%. Add to this the reduction of shelf space in libraries, the costs to monitor holdings, the ease of online searches, and the ability to store accompanying support documents, such as images, data sets, and, though not mentioned by Varian, audio/video files, and cost savings could be significant. “When everything is electronic,” Varian notes, “publications will have much more general forms, new filtering and refereeing mechanisms will be used, [but] archiving and standardization will remain a problem.”12

Clarke and Kingsley suggest that this movement toward an open access model would not come without a “spirited” defense from the “For-profit corporations that have grown rich through exploitation of their multiple� and mini-monopolies” within the academic publishing world.13 The death-like grip of publishers over access to the research expected at top-ranked university library was almost complete by the end of the millennium,14 with annual prices increasing at alarming rates. University libraries at the turn of this century consistently faced increased journal costs to just hold on to what they have, with little or no room to add new volumes. Indeed, sit in on any faculty committee dealing with university library holdings and the conversation almost always includes some discussion over what journals will be kept, added, and deleted to fit the coming year’s budget. It is not a small matter for some: the number of holdings in a library is part of the rankings of academic libraries and universities,15 though the value of this measure may be fading.16

Some of the issues outlined at a Stanford University Libraries colloquium in 2006 addressing the online journal movement included:

  • The rise in cost of academic journals of 215 percent between 1986 and 2003, compared with a 68 percent rise in the consumer price index over the same period;
  • For profit journals charged three times the per-page cost as non-for-profit journals;
  • 73 percent of all articles in all economics journals, and 100 percent of the articles in the top four economic journals could be found for free online.17

Notably, two years before the Stanford colloquium, that university’s faculty senate had passed a resolution encouraging faculty to factor in the price of a journal when considering where to publish research. The colloquium itself was described as a response to the “crisis in journal pricing.”18 All this talk of creating new online journals has not gone forward without some response from traditional publishers. As noted by several researchers and news organizations,19 the publishing giants in early 2007 hired lobbyists whose sole intent would be to discredit the open access movement, while extolling existing publishing houses as the protectors of the peer-review system. As noted, the response could be understood within the context of a perceived monetary threat most publishers would see in online open access, as well, as a genuine fear of the unstable (perhaps “unsettled” would be better descriptor) nature of electronic archives.

But, legitimate concern do exists as to how online journals will be operated. Will they be peer reviewed in a manner consist with tradition? Will they themselves be sustainable monetarily, or subject to the whims and personal dedication of faculty and universities? As Harnad suggested in 1998, the Faustian relationship between authors and publishers is a well-tooled model not likely to give way without a fight from some academic authors who mistrust electronic archives, or almost all “traditional” publishers who are deeply entrenched in the “Scroll Era.”20 This trust in the author-university-publisher-research model has its merits. The large publisher has a monetary investment in ensuring a journal is held to high standards. Authors are assured full academic credit for appearing in the “right” journals. Universities can tout their researchers as “cutting edge.” Finally, perceived failure to maintain such standards might lead to an exodus of authors, and, with that, a decline in author submissions and library subscriptions.

On the other hand, while this new wave of academic publishing may not be the dire threat to civilization some suggest, it would be a very large leap to believe that online journals face only blue sky and smooth sailing. Issues of sustainability and the very ephemeral nature of HTML itself, has worried some researchers, going back to the mid 1990s. As noted by Hitchcock, et al., in 1997, the “bare facts of this change [is] a simple record of a short period which may or may not, with greater analysis and hindsight, prove to be an important pivotal moment.21 Among the issues raised by Hitchcock were the questionable “stability” of online journals, and, perhaps more importantly, the ability of online journals to carry more than merely one-dimensional, written content. �In these projects lie the clues–information filtering, agents, links, multimedia–not just to the next generation of the digital journals but to the emerging shape of the digital library. Clearly these projects will not provide all the answers or the tools, but they are good starting points from which to understand how, also why, e-journals will change.22

In a way, as hinted at by Hitchcock, the modern online journal, free from the fetters of obscurity on dusty academic library shelves, will be truly public, accessible by millions more potential readers.23 The very nature of online journals is that, well, they are online, and being online, the issue of accessibility has more to do with reader access affiliation than reader locale. If a reader has some relationship with a library with access to specific databases, such as Pro-Cite or Web of Science, then this reader has access to a massive amount of information. And given the off-university access allowed by libraries, the reader need not ever step onto the grounds of any hallowed “bricks-and-mortar” institution to avail herself of physical research materials. The location of the research materials is not important, whether in Princeton, NJ, or Manhattan, KS.

Conversely, the impact on authors will be magnified. Rather than publishing in a small journal of little note, every author’s work will have equal access to every reader. Add free access to a journal, and the publication becomes truly universal. “For authors, the answer is simple: a free online journal or archive gives their work a much larger audience, and therefore much greater impact.”24 Morrison and Suber go on to argue that the long-term impact of online publication will be enhanced by the ease to which researchers can find existing research, especially open (and thus, free) access research. This ease of access will result in more and more citations of free online journals, and more and more researchers turning away from information hidden either in offline archives (libraries) or behind password-locked web sites. Given that authors seek impact over monetary reward, open access journals will be seen as a path to more citations, and more citations a path to more recognition.

The online journal movement will also lengthen the “long tail” of academic research publication itself. To some extent this effect, first posed by Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine in October 2004, will exaggerate the population of narrowly defined journals, given the low economic barriers.25 Rather than having to appeal to a large population of potential readers, the economic model of small journals will, based on this theory, result in more and more small, excruciating narrowly focused journal.

This is not to suggest that creating an online journal is little more than a selecting a web address (URL) and some editing software. It involves more than just setting up a web site and filling it with academic journal articles. It is more than putting out a call for research, editing the ensuing presumed flood of work and putting in on the web. And, it is more than pulling together a team of editors, reviewers, and graduate students to do the legwork. The online journal requires a careful step-wise approach that takes into account all of these elements (and many more) at the university or private foundation level. A host of policy and technical issues must be addressed by all online journals, early or late in their development. In some respects, online journals are in the full bloom of their adolescence, with most online editors feeling their way, much as early web site builders were when they coded sites by hand in the early 1990s.

Having established that a new publishing trend is washing over us, let us examine one possible set of criteria and the various concerns every online journal publisher and/or editor should address early in the process, rather than late. We will examine these steps within three general phases: Getting Started, Operations, and Long-Term Sustainability.

Phase One: Getting Started

The idea for starting an online journal might well up from many sources. It could be generated from a sense of need: a particular subject is not being addressed. It might also simply satisfy the interests of a small group of individuals. And, again, it could be the result of long-term research in one particular area, or the recent funding of a new area of academic activity.

Whatever the sources of the idea, the group’s first activity will be to decide if the new journal will be open access, subscription access, or limited access. The first two of these are well known. Limited access may include the title and abstract, with a subscription fee required to access the full document. It might be a “page”–a curious term for some amount of research online–from the article, with a fee to access the remaining information. It might also be full journal access through a library or institution that pays the annual subscription fee. Fees for access are but one element of the financial structure of print/limited-access journals. Also to be considered include, but are not limited to, author fees, copyright owner rights, and republication rights. Willinsky describes the economic options for online journals in more detail in “The Nine Flavours of Open Access Scholarly Publishing.”26Willinsky is founder of the Public Knowledge Project, which promotes its own online journal management software, Open Journal Systems (OJS).27 Other sources for guiding groups entering the online publishing arena include the Public Library of Science (PLoS).28 Largely focused on publishers of scientific and medical journals, PLoS provides a detailed economic and administrative structure, and advocates end-to-end electronic journal management systems, such as OJS. The detailed budgets include fees for everything from a resource guide to electronic archive repository systems to fees it charges (and suggests new publishing houses tariffs, as well) for, among other things, proofing, art manipulation, and layout.29 Notably, it suggests that each article eventually published in an online journal would cost, on average based on experience, $1,065.75. Further, it suggests a print-based concept that each “issue” would then cost $10,697.50, based on a “110-page book.” The outline provided is a valuable guide for the detailed activities required to publish academic works online.

But the issues of establishing an online journal go far beyond the issues of cost and staffing. This paper will address the not only the economic issues associated with an open access journal, as compared to the other two forms, print and limited access, but also the management and other issues not touched on in any detail by Willinsky and PLoS.

Journal Subject Defined: the Long-Tail Theory in Action

Traditional print journals are driven by two fundamental economic verities: large subscription numbers and large subscription fees. The subscriber fees pay for the editorial staff, printing, and shipping/storage costs of the journals. These costs are not always expressed in the subscriber’s check to the publisher: authors may pay a per-page fee, for example. Libraries pay an access fee for limited access journals, and, for print-only journals, the costs of space and personnel time associated with storage and management. Even as access increased to more and more journals through electronic archives, many of these journals are still being printed and mailed to subscribers. It is an economic publishing model that persists, despite the challenges from the growing number of online, free access journals and the static or shrinking budgets of university libraries.

Traditional print journals, such as Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly (JMCQ), fall into the left side of the Long Tail Theory as defined by Anderson.30They have many subscribers and a very general subject area–print and electronic journalism, advertising, and public relations, as well as other areas such as journalism history, some aspects of business, and global/web communications. This likely will resolve itself over time, as more online journals appear and more print journals disappear, as shown in Chart Two. However, the curve itself may not persist. Though not a specific focus of this research, the author would postulate that over time, the curve would become so elongated to the right and so narrow to the left that it will approximate a flat line, with very little in terms of “major” journals as indicated by the red line in Chart Two. The result in the long term could be a simple flat line, with very few, if any, “major” journals.

The economics of print journals require a general subject approach, even within a specific subject area such as journalism. But, logically, if a researcher is interested in only one area of research, and perhaps only a small topic within that area, such as “online journal production and management,” JMCQ may not be, in the long term, the most logical choice for publishing. In some way, this pattern is reflected in the large upswing in specialized magazines in the past 30 years.

From the perspective of the reader, who is likely a researcher, choosing research to cite may not be so much about the status of a journal, as it is access (as previously discussed). Thus, if the mass of researchers looking for material to cite fan out across the landscape to many new online journals, readership numbers for JCMQ and any other large print journal will fall. As a side note, this would suggest that the left side of Anderson’s Long Tail would become more and more narrow, as fewer and fewer publications would garner large readerships. And, given that some libraries are looking hard at its cost-per-reader for journals such as JMCQ, it would not be a stretch to suggest that fewer libraries would subscribe to for-fee journals. That is, if a journal costs $500 annually for a library to provide access (print or limited) to researchers, and five researchers at a particular university access the journal during a year, then the cost per reader would be $100. Another journal may cost $1,000 and, with only 100 researchers accessing it, would generate a $10 per reader rate. Of course, this all just a matter of tossing numbers around. But, as was noted earlier, some universities are looking carefully at not only the reputation of journals, but also their cost, weighing the value of each journal in terms of library budgets as much as in resulting tenure for professors.

A strong argument can be made that, while the left side of the Long Tail may contain both online and print journals, virtually all online journals in the future will reside in the right area of the Long Tail. These journals will be narrowly defined to match the needs of a very precise academic population, such as, possibility, The Journal of Nineteenth Century Rural Swedish U.S. Newspapers. Such a journal need not match the size of the content of JMCQ, in either the number of articles published annually or in the number of its readers. It would address a narrowly, and most important, perhaps, self-defined populace. The ability to define such a narrow readership may be the driving energy behind the current online journal phenomena. Of course, the cost to produce such small journals is an issue, given they have no subscriptions. However, the cost is far below that of a print journal or monograph. This issue of costs will be address later in this article.

The focus of a proposed new journal may be based upon the desires of a non-university sponsor, or it may be simply be a natural result of a grant funding new research, such as bio-security. Whatever the chosen subject, a mission statement that clearly defines the nature of the publication will help in the next step, establishing the editorial structure.

Editors and Editorial Boards

Depending on the size of its budget and the intended scope, amount, and depth of its publishing, the journal may require more than one editor, plus additional support staff, such as copywriters, web managers, and staff to handle reviewer relations. However, it is just as likely that in its first year, only an editor and a graduate student will be required. The editor and student will be expected to have some web skills, since almost all of the activity of the journal’s maintenance will be online. In addition, some familiarity, at least, with the subject of the journal would be expected of the editor.

One of the first actions by the editor would be to recruit members of the journal’s editorial or policy board. These individuals should be leaders in their fields–academic or private–as well as exhibiting interest in the project. These individuals may come from the core group that started the project or may be recommended by that group. This is very important step. One of the measures of the strength of a new online journal, given that subscription rates are irrelevant and rejection rates dubious, is its editorial board. A new journal needs a strong board to support its credibility as a journal. It may also look to other factors, such as citation rates of its articles in other journals. However, such citation rates can only occur, of course, only after the publication is underway. A strong, nationally recognized editorial board would likely attract submissions and aid in the recruitment of reviewers. Of course, the argument might be made that in a strictly online world, the role of the editorial board would be more of a rating of research, rather than a strictly peer review process used today. That is, the board would be expected to offer its opinion on each article, perhaps even rate the article via some scheme. If this sounds more like reviews of a book (or even a movie, for that matter), so be it. The space restrictions of print were and remain not conducive to highly visible, if still anonymous, participation by editorial boards. The use of blogs, for example, to support online discussions of each published journal articles in an almost side-by-side environment would provide immediate and lively feedback to researchers.

Pulling together an editorial board might start with a small group of interested researchers within the field or within a university. Using a snowball method, each member of the small group could recommend other potential editors board members. And these new board members could recommend others, and so on.

The role of the board would be largely to provide reviews of papers submitted. But such a board might also be called on for advice on special issues, staff changes/new hires, and other management issues. A new journal would be wise to create as large a board as possible to ensure a low annual review rate for each member. Large boards also push back any belief that the journal is exclusively for the benefit of only a few researchers. This is not to suggest that very narrowly defined subject areas might result in very narrowly defined editorial boards, of perhaps as few as five members. However, such a narrowly defined journal would approach the nature of a small academic commons, rather than an online journal. The definitions and delineations of an online academic journal versus an academic commons are interesting and certainly worthy of future research.

Reviewers and Publication Schedules

It has been widely known and discussed that the peer-review process within traditional academic journals often results in long delays from submission to publication.31 The new online journal should use technology and gentle prodding by editors to avoid this. The technology is email/web site depositories combined with either Portable Document Files (PDFs) or Rich Text Format (RTF) word processing files. The advantage of the former is permanence of the document itself: PDF are not easily changed. They also tend to be smaller files. With a built in PDF Reader web reference embedded in the download coding, reviewers can read the document inside their web browser window or print a copy for offline reading. This electronic delivery should save several days, if not weeks, of communication both directions between the journal editor and the reviewer.

This, however, does not directly address the issue of reviewer delays. To avoid weeks of no response, little can be suggested beyond a gentle prodding by the journal editor, combined with a deadline. Reviewers can be reminded that the online nature of the publication should engender quicker replies on their part, and that reviewing an article once or twice year was an understanding to their being on the editorial board. Making timely publication a part of the mission statement of a journal can also help create a culture of responsive, timely reviews.

Review times may be managed with monetary compensation. The economics of print/limited access journals allows for some honorarium to be built into the review process. This is less likely for open access online journals, the funding of which might be in the form of small grants, university support, or author fees similar to those presently used mainly by some science journals.

The review process is, ultimately, tied into the publication pattern of an online journal. The very nature of online publishing depends more upon editors realizing their journals are not mirrors of offline print publishing. For example, online journals need not publish on artificial, calendar-driven publishing dates. Such timetables may make sense for reader-driven online publications, such as magazines. Readers want to read the entire publication: accessing it at one time makes more sense in that case. But for research that is typically searched on an as-needed basis, it is a higher necessity to publish immediately, rather than wait for some number of journal articles to be “packaged” into an issue. Thus, rather than creating even more delays, journal editors could publish research when it has been edited and properly formatted for the web.

As we move into a discussion of online journal operations, decisions such as this might be decided prior to an online journal’s launch. But they can just as easily be adopted later, as has been the case with some online journals, such as the Web Journal of Mass Communication Research (WJMCR) that started with print-styled issues, and ten years later abandoned that format:

Because we publish online, we have come to realize that it is not necessary to adhere to the conventional quarterly scheme required of printed academic journals that depend on the U.S. Postal Service for their circulation.32

Phase Two: Operations

Having established a team (or individual) to run the journal, as well as the editorial board to assist in reviews and policy, the next phase in online publishing focuses on working out the protocol of operations: how articles are received, reviewed and published, as well as, stored, and updated.

One of the more time consuming elements of online journal management is keeping track of submissions, papers out for review, and those accepted/rejected for publication. Given the expected low amount of funds available per journal living in right side of the Long Tail, software assistance is almost a given. Attempting to do the task without software support in anything but a low-traffic (few submissions) environment would be more than a single editor might fairly be expected to take on. Since 1998, Public Knowledge Project (PKP) has been one of the leaders in supporting academic journal publishing. Software created by PKP provides a free, open access solution to online journal management.33

Software Platform

Keying into the growing demand for journal publishing, software packages have been designed to make the operation easier and more manageable. More than two dozen are listed with short descriptions at SPARC, a division of the Association of Research Libraries.34 Among these, a few are free (open access) software packages, including ePress,35 published by the University of Surrey; Open Journal Software (OJS), published by the Public Knowledge Project;36 and Zope.37 As do many of these open source software packages, OJS, offers substantial support to editors in the way of file management and work flow coordination. Open Journal Systems is a journal management and publishing system that has been developed by the Public Knowledge Project through its federally funded efforts to expand and improve access to research.

OJS Features

  1. OJS is installed locally and locally controlled.
  2. Editors configure requirements, sections, review process, etc.
  3. Online submission and management of all content.
  4. Subscription module with delayed open access options.
  5. Comprehensive indexing of content part of global system.
  6. Reading Tools for content, based on field and editors’ choice.
  7. Email notification and commenting ability for readers.
  8. Complete context-sensitive online Help support.38

These relatively new–most created within the past decade–software solutions have had a significant impact on the publishing landscape. The cost to create an online journal, in terms of both online and offline management, are significantly reduced. The software provides tracking of submissions, reviewers, and publishing, all within an online environment. The need to print, mail, re-mail, and ultimately mail the revised manuscripts to authors is moved to a secure web area. This provides easy downloads, uploads, and extremely valuable tracking of the entire process. No team considering launching a new online journal should overlook the massive positive impact these systems could have on their operations.

Finding Space for Electronic Archives

The decision of where a journal will be hosted–on whose server the files will reside–can be driven by network capacity, cost or prestige.

Many universities, having seen their web networks evolve in fits and starts over the past 15 years, may be reticent or simply unable to provide a secure and off-campus accessible web area. With hundreds, possibly thousands of sub-network servers operating within a university domain, the ability to provide authentication–the ability to provide authorization via passwords to incoming visitors to the journal site and contents–can be a very large challenge. Editorial boards for new journals may encounter significant resistance from university technology professionals to hosting within a university server system.

However, many university libraries are attempting to install D-Space servers intended to store faculty research. In fact, the recent directives from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to require public access to funded research is a significant impetus for these libraries and universities.39 It is a small, though significant, step for a library to go from D-Space to journal publishing.

Another factor to consider in deciding where to store these files is the university bandwidth: how fast do files, especially large ones, move to and from school sites. The overtaxed bandwidth within some universities may provide only slow downloads of even moderately large articles. As noted by Fritz in a discussion regarding video files, “some university network administrators see it [these files] as a potential network �killer’.”40 Editorial boards of proposed new journals may find themselves looking elsewhere for hosting.

Stanford’s HighWire Press, in operation since 1995, has expanded into one of the largest repository of online journals, with more than 1,100 available. This publisher provides the option to journals it is hosting to charge for access by article or by subscription, or to provide open access.41 HighWire, and other such presses, provide a solution to potential journal boards facing a lack of sufficient staff technical support.

The storage issue of online journals could be resolved by storing journal files at off-campus providers such as Box.net, FlipDrive, Xdrive, Storegate, and GlobalDrive. Charges for storage space through these providers as of May 20, 2008, ran roughly from $5 to $25 per gigabyte per month. Services provided include:

Remote Access
Mobile Access
Private File Sharing
Public File Sharing
Scheduled Backup
File Search
Drag-and-Drop

The “front-end” of the journal might be within a university, foundation, or non-profit, with the actual location of the academic articles at one of these secure off-campus providers.

Finally, the need for a university to present itself as a leader in a particular area of research, such as oceanography, may create a sense of mission dedicated to solving the network and cost issues presented in the publishing of an online journal. If the journal is seen as part of the mission of the university to excel in biosciences, for example, the funds to support that online publication can be built into the grants for other funding vehicles. This treads on areas of university politics, which, while the mastering of is vital to any publication trying to survive the turf battles within any university, is outside the scope of this article. This is not to minimize in any way the importance that publishing boards address the political issues of territorialism that are de facto a part of all universities, in one form or another.

Link Rot

It is an old story, but probably true that within seconds of the first web site being launched, someone somewhere bookmarked that site’s URL. Bookmarking was such a popular activity in the 1990s that some journal articles addressed everything from how to organize their rampant numbers,42 to what to do when a browser encountered “link rot.”43 Link rot, or dead bookmarks, usually occurred when a web page’s name or location was changed. The bookmark was directed to the infamous Error 404 page, or something similar, but rarely to the new location of the information. Losing a link to a page came to be seen as an insulting act on the part of a web manager. It is a “maddening habit of Web page authors to unthinkingly change the URL (address) of their pages, rendering a bookmark worthless.”44 Of course, it also generated some humorous responses, such as the now-famous version of a 404 Error page to be found at ibiblio.org (http://www.ibiblio.org/abc.html). Perhaps one of the most massive incidents of link rot occurred on January 20, 2001, when the change in administration at the White House resulted in the website, www.whitehouse.gov, being wiped clean of its content. At least 170,000 links to content in the site were instantly broken.45

However, bookmarking is not the only, and may not be the most critical content issue facing academic journals regarding broken links. As more and more research relies upon online sources of information, the citations used are essential elements of that research. It is a simple issue of showing the source of a particular bit of information. Prior to online journals, these citations where subject to author of typesetting errors, of course; but rarely did a particular cited print work simple cease to exist. Online, citations do cease to work, and, as a team of Nebraska researchers found, at a predictable rate. They found that links used in course syllabi had a “half-life” of 55 months. That is, half the links used in the syllabi were broken in a little more than 4.5 years. Following this, another half of the links were broken in 55 more months.46 Others have suggested that link half-lives fall between 2 and 6 years.47 Researchers also have found, at least within mass communication journals, that the half-life of links is longer for publications with .org (non-profits) or .gov (government) domain name extensions.48 These researchers also found in 2006 that overall 37% of the links had rotted over a four-year period, a finding consistent with that of previously cited researchers.

The question of how to deal with broken links with online journal article does not render a simple answer. Some online journals resist changing any element of a published work, even if that change is intended to correct a broken link.49 At the same time, efforts are well underway to assist researchers find a particular “lost” web site or web page. The Online Computer Library Center’s (http://www.oclc.org) Persistent Uniform resource Locator (PURL) project uses a “resolver,” software that associates the sought web site with one already known, essentially “correcting” the bad address. As of June 3, 2003, almost three-quarters of a million PURLs had been created, with more than 5 billion resolutions.50

Editorial boards of online journals must weight the sanctity of the author’s research as written, compared to the desires of the reader to access references in deciding whether to attempt to update broken links. If it decides to attempt to correct link rot, it might use its own staff to search for a suitable substitute, such as finding a new location for a journal article. Or, the staff might choose to contact the author and request a correction or other options. Also, the journal web site could include special coding that would automatically notify the editorial staff that a link is broken within an article. Such a link could be labeled as broken, the link coding removed, and, thus, left uncorrected.

A peripheral issue of content modification, the desire of an author to update published research, is greatly enhanced within online journals. Rather than taking up scarce space available with a print journal, authors can easily offer changes–literally new editions–to already formatted online works. This could lead to increased timeliness of research, as well as more involvement of author with their research over the long-term.

HTML sustainability: Is PDF the (only) answer?

Visit the World Wide Web Consortium’s web site (http://www.w3.org) and spend any time wandering through the site, it is possible to encounter three forms of HTML coding for an emdash.51 Gould’s argument is that HTML, through all of its changes, may not be the best home for information over the long haul. With the changes in the “accepted” HTML standards by the Consortium itself, rendering something as innocuous as a long dash symbol poses a real challenge for browsers. Of course, other characters present challenges, such as quote marks, exclamation points, and special characters, such as copyright marks. Ultimately, the question of readability over time can generate a very real uneasiness among online journal publishers and researchers, online or not. As each generation of HTML is born, modifications to the underlying coding, as was the case for the emdash, can render prior coding obsolete. The emdash, as Gould points out, was once simply “emdash,” then “151,” then “8212”–each “upgrade” rendering the previous coding as an image, but not an image of an emdash.52 Anyone who has converted a Microsoft Word document into HTML will likely have noticed that the quotes referred to as “smart quotes” at times do not render as any quotes at all, but, instead, odd symbols.

However, while the most common formatting option, other than HTML, is the popular PDF format, owned by Abode, Inc., even here new online journal publishers may face tough decisions. Two of the most obvious of these are, first, that the storing any research within a proprietary software format raises long-term access issues. Second, PDF files are larger in size, than HTML, raising the possibility that some users may suffer system failures. Some commercial web reviewers, such as those at UseIt.com and pass4press.com, list far more issues, such as image resolution, font embedding, page sizing, compression, as well as browser crashes.53 But despite the software ownership and file size issues, it is of note that the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has adopted a form of PDF (PDF/A) that it believes represents the best choice for long-term electronic archiving.

The feature-rich nature of PDF can create difficulties in preserving information over the long-term, and some useful features of the PDF file format are incompatible with the demands of long-term preservation. For example, PDF documents are not necessarily self-contained, drawing on system fonts and other content stored external to the original file. As time passes, and especially as technology changes, these external connections can be broken, and the dependencies cause information to be lost. Additionally, because of the lack of standardization among the many PDF development tools on the market, there is inconsistency in the implementation of the file format. This lack of standardization could be chaotic for the information managers of the future, especially as it would be difficult (if not impossible) for them to “get under the hood” of the PDF files unless a format specification were put in place that specifically addressed long-term preservation needs.54

Though the ISO does not address the issue of using proprietary software, the issue is worthy of further discussion. Storing research long-term within a proprietary software environment raises issues of long-term access, software availability, and a host of other potential challenges. What if the very basis of Adobe’s PDF software changes, or is significantly modified in such as way that accessing past journal research is only possible with forms of the software no long supported by upgraded system software? What if some online virus is spread that acts on only the readers, but, by doing so, threatens access to archived research? What if a virus uses a browser’s access of a research article to insidiously modify a PDF? What if the virus acts to reverse the download to a phantom upload? While these and other similar issues are beyond the scope of this research, they are all worthy of further discussion and research. Perhaps if Adobe placed the PDF Reader into open source, more online publishers would use it. As noted by Mathias, “The PDF format is moving toward standardization; fitting, since it has long been considered by many to be a de facto standard. Nonetheless, many organizations do not use PDF because until the standard is finalized, the PDF format remains proprietary.”55

Phase Three: Long-Term Sustainability

As is the case with some projects within academia, it often is the driving force of one professor or a small group that is behind the creation of a new online journal. This entrepreneurial spirit is the fire necessary to get a project off the ground, establish guidelines, and attract necessary support. Long term, however, the entrepreneur is not a sustainable model. As noted by Wright, without an understanding of the role of the entrepreneur in the academic community in terms of a reduced academic scholarship performance, the faculty member busy creating and sustaining the journal may be penalized.

A major challenge is the resolution of the dilemma that faculty required to contribute to the development of spin-offs may need to have considerably more practical experience than typical business school academics and as a result may be less able to contribute to academic research. Policy therefore needs to address the career structure and integration of faculty in business schools whose role is to promote academic entrepreneurship.56

Staff funding models might include buy outs of university faculty time to act as journal editors, funding of graduate students to act as editorial assistants, and funding through libraries and schools of library science. Establishing a solid future of financial support is crucial, not simply because of the fate of the journal, but the fate of the research itself. It is more than the demoralization of researchers who might see their work simply “disappear,” it is the loss of that research and its ripple effect through all other research build upon the now lost academic work.

Funding/Sponsorship/Value to the Institution

The level of necessary financial support may depend upon the nature of the operations structure of the journal. And, to some extent, the operations structure of the journal may reflect the scope. Broadly defined subject areas likely will require more staffing than narrow topics. For example, the journal, Journalism Monographs, might require a smaller staff, given the frequency of publication and the nature of the articles published, than a larger journal, such as JCMQ. Should JMCQ choose to go online as an open access journal, the staff would need to be significantly larger than Journalism Monographs, given that JCMQ publishes roughly 40 articles a year. Of course, the decision of how many articles to publish online would no longer be dictated by available space, in some cases. And, some models have been proposed, as mentioned earlier, that generate “ratings” for submitted work, rather than accept/reject standards.

Hosting

As mentioned earlier, the cost of server space within a university is minimal. However, while storage media costs have fallen dramatically in recent years, universities often struggle with a far more challenging issue: access speed. In fact, the demands placed on a university system to accommodate one particular activity, such as the downloading of PDS from an online journal hosted with the university network, can cause other users to experience significant reduction in their online downloads and uploads. In the case of San Jose State University, the popular use of Skype was banned because of, largely, bandwidth “hogging” by users. Citing concerns regarding security and consumption of bandwidth, school administrators feel that the service is an unnecessary and potentially illegal waste of resources. The University of California–Santa Barbara and California State University–Dominguez Hills have also recently banned the popular [Voice IP] service.57

The impact of a new and popular journal on a university’s already stressed bandwidth should be accessed before the journal is launched.

Tenure/Academic Ratings

In the middle of 2006, this author was contacted by a handful of journalism schools seeking guidance on how to evaluate the importance of online publication. The “old” model of rejection rates and the “reputation” of a journal seemed remote to these school committees in terms of evaluating online publishing. Given the likelihood of academics gravitating more and more toward open access publications to find research to support their works, citation rates of less-than-fully accessible research articles are likely to fall.58

The concept of using citation rates as one measure has attracted some support. The logic is that, the more an author is cited, the more likely other researchers find the research valid. This is, essentially, using the vast numbers of researchers as a free form journal board casting votes for publication by inserting citations to one work and not another. And, given the recent creation of new tools to track citation rates, the process has become easier.59

Several flaws in this system of citation rates have been suggested. Eysenbach noted the inherent advantage that open access journal articles would have over traditional print journals and even over those online journals requiring minimal log-in access. Authors publishing online would be cited more often.60 Walters, et. al., noted that citation rates produced by the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI) are filled with inherent flaws, among them:

  • the quality of published material cannot be constrained by time — the two-year period set by the ISI for citations is arbitrary;
  • the number of journals in the ISI’s database is a minute proportion of those published;
  • reviews are cited more frequently than original research, thus favouring journals that opt for these articles as part of a publishing strategy;
  • the IF does not take into account self-citations, which amount to a third of all citations;
  • errors are common in reference lists (occurring in up to a quarter of references), inevitably affecting IF accuracy; and
  • the assumption of a positive link between citations and quality is ill-founded, in that we cite articles for diverse reasons, including to refer to research judged suspect or poor.61

The very future of online or print journals themselves should rightly cause academic units to take pause. Take, for example, the possibility that all academic research may, at some point, be published within a university’s own D-Space. That is, rather than sending research to a journal outside of the university, what if, instead, the article was made available online through a university’s own servers? The role of the journal would be reduced to that of the previously mentioned movie critic, giving its blessing to some and “panning” others. If this model of publishing sounds familiar, it should. Authors publishing their own work–vanity press–has long been considered low brow and not worthy of much consideration. The reasoning being that if an author cannot convince a publisher that a work is worthy, then the work is not worthy and should be left on a shelf in some personal library. The notion that an author, in this case, a researcher, might skirt the mesh of established and, thus, respected journal editors generates some serious concern among some academics. Who is to assure other researchers that what they are reading and possibly citing is more than gibberish?

Varian suggested in 1998 his own publication system for an online journal that starts with a board of editors reviewing papers and ranking them 1 to 5. All submitted articles, in this system, are published (with author permission), with readers able to scan the holdings looking for those that meet their particular level (say, 3). Add to this the ability of readers to comment on published work, and you have, according to Varian, a “model�unlike the conventional publishing model, but [one that] addresses many of the same design considerations.” Tenure committee would be able to track these publications, just as readers would, and accept publications based on rating standards acceptable for their institutions. Authors would be able to update their work, and, presumably, expect another round of reviews. The entire model, Varian argues, is fluid, interactive, and eliminates the economic barriers and potential biases inherent in the far more expensive, far slower-to-respond traditional print publishing model.62

Cites and InfoLinking

Differentiated from our discussion of “Link Rot” above, the challenge here is formatting, both of hyperlinks to research footnotes and of those meant to link to additional information sources outside of the journal itself, the latter of which we might call infolinks. The linking to footnotes has a few options.

  1. Linking to references located at the end of the article, with links from the cited footnote back to the original position in the article;
  2. Linking to a pop-up window;
  3. Linking to a frame page that exists outside the frame in which the article resides.

Other options are generally variations of these. Each of these comes with its particular drawbacks. Linking to footnotes below the article is troublesome if the citation is from an author name (as in Chicago Style). If the cited author appears more than once in the work, the link back to the original reader’s spot in the article is difficult, if not impossible to create. However, if the editors use a style that links numerical citation, such as that common with legal citations, the link back can be presented precisely. Of course, in this case, the actual footnote section can be greatly increased, which could affect download speeds.

Linking to a pop-up window is a dicey option, given that many browsers are specifically set to block pop-up windows in order to avoid undesired advertising pitches. In a similar vein, framed web sites–a rare phenomena these days–may create issues of improper linking from search engines that may produce in a result of one frame, but not both. Special care must be taken to ensure that readers are directed to the proper bi-framed page from search engines.

Infolinks are a separate challenge. As Thelwall noted in 2003, “Web links represent both anarchy and order.” Too few may miss the point of using these links to enrich in depth and breathe a research article. Too many can cause confusion with readers that borders on an annoyance. Yet, as fundamentally educators, researchers are born with the desire to enhance and deepen the learning experience (we would hope) that is part of academia. As Thelwall goes on to suggest: In many disciplines, education includes pointing students to a range of information sources for assimilation or evaluation. Given the importance of the Web as an information source, there is [stress in original] a necessity in general terms to identify relevant online information and point students towards it, whether this is achieved by URLs in printed handouts or links online in course Web pages.63 The challenge for the journal editors is whether to choose to work with the author to enhance the research by suggesting specific infolinks, or to merely publish in a hands-off mode.

Conclusions

We have, in just a few years, moved from a publishing model dominated by a well-established hierarchy of journal prestige, to a path to a free-flowing model of sharply defined journals, each seemingly with its own narrow subject area. All manner of metaphors might be imposed: shifts from department stores to retail boutiques; consumer preference for single topic magazines over more general news publications; and the overall, undeniable flow of readership to web sites over print. At the same time, the reader as author and publisher has suggested that new ideas and written works will be judged after publication, not restrained from publication by panels of judges. All of these trends have come to academic research.

This discussion outlines a few major challenges facing new publishers of online academic research. Each of these challenges requires careful consideration. Whether it is defining a subject, establishing an editorial board (and policy), or merely determining its publication schedule, online journals offer a wide variety of options. Subject can be exquisitely narrow, boards can be singularly refined, and publication can be determined by the value of each article, rather than an artificial seasonal publication pattern.

New online journals and their access policies and editorial procedures have not even come close to establishing “industry standards,” and it may be they never will. Each may choose its own path, appealing to its own readers, publishing its own preferred works. The challenges such “anarchy” poses to the academic community and to the corpus of research is not part of this discussion, but obvious should be the focal point of future research. For instance, as mentioned above, what if research journals are supplanted as actual “publishers,” and evolve into review sites. Such models do exist within the movie industry: critics do not create films, but evaluate their worthiness as creative artifacts. Future “online journals” may be simply a grouping of respected researchers commenting on and supplying links to research already available online.

Such a model could bring greater transparency to the review process. No longer would reviewers be able to hide in anonymity: the discussion of one research piece over another would be a full-throated debate (probably using blogs), with far more give and take. Without a degree of oversight, such an exchange could slide into a flame war of words and accusations, of course. But, it could result in a very rich environment for learning, mutual understanding, and overall progress.

This new activity may mimic existing online portals that assist researchers find appropriate and relevant research for use in their teaching and publishing. Such “online journal portals” (OJP) may provide collections of excerpts from various pertinent research articles that could be used in classrooms (versus what is now a printed textbook). With proper citations to the authors, such “class packs” could avoid issues of copyright currently facing both publishers and faculty. In addition, these OJPs might provide guidance in connecting researchers to grant providers (or vice-versa), linking those who are interested in an area of research with another of similar interests.

But perhaps of greatest value, these OJPs could be very narrowly defined within the right side of the Long Tail, serving only a very small, narrowly focused group of researchers. And within this “commons,” as in some cases in the previous century, a few scholars might dominate the research landscape within a small number of articles addressing only a very careful defined issue.64 If this sounds familiar to some, it might be because the nature of these OJPs might be very close to what we are already seeing within university-sponsored “research commons.” These portals are providing areas of discussion, access to online tools, and areas of storage, activities that are all consistent with the past and existing ideals of print research journals, but in a far more comprehensive and powerful online format.

The nature of academic publishing has changed. Much as newspapers and television struggle to come to grips with a world where they are the creators, but not the distributors, of information, so are academic publishers waking to a new world that may no longer need what they have to offer. The questions facing academics in this new world may not fall into the where to publish, but rather purely what to publish. The issues facing new online journals dealt with in this article may be as ephemeral as those challenging print publishing, and, may at some point in the not very distant future be as moot. We are in a time of transition, moving from print to online to OJPs. As uncomfortable as this may feel, it cannot to denied or slowed, any more than the eventual replacement of OJPs with the next form of academic publishing. We may modify the rule “publish or perish” to “research, post, discuss, and revise or perish.”


Gould is an associate professor at the AQ Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kansas State University. While teaching exclusively in advertising, his interests are in the rapidly changing environment of academic publishing. Specifically, he is tracking patterns of publishing within mass communication journals, as well as examining the viability of such touchstones as peer review and print subscriptions within the online world. He is editor of the Online Journal of Rural Research & Policy, and the Eye on Kansas e-zine. He uses YouTube videos in his classes and loves hiking in the Rockies. 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.